"I was gone for five hours, and when I returned home, John was sitting in the den, with Molly in his arms. I asked about Sandy, and he said something had come up. I must have had a look on my face, because he said, 'You think I can't handle a baby?' He had given her a bottle, changed her diaper, played with her. Yes, John was a man's man, but there was a softer side to him. There was never a time when he didn't have time for children."
Knee problems kept McDonald from playing football for Woodlawn High, and he finally required surgery when his mobility decreased as he limped toward his 40s. In February 1997, therapy took him to Kernan Hospital, where he found it hard to fathom the guy who chatted him up as he prepared to sweat at the exercise bike and other stations.
"I walked into the locker room, and there sat Johnny Unitas," McDonald said. "After I had changed, he came over and asked what had happened to my knee, and what exercises they had me doing. My sessions would last from an hour to 90 minutes, and the entire time, Mr. Unitas followed me from station to station. This happened on three occasions, and we talked like old friends.
"My only regret is that I didn't get his autograph. My girlfriend asked me why I didn't, and I explained that it would not have felt right."
Charlebois graduated from Calvert Hall in 1981, but not without a struggle. When he was a junior, an auto accident broke his neck and paralyzed him from the chest down. Paul, his father, was a racquetball partner and friend of Unitas', a relationship that Jeff counts as a blessing.
"He was instrumental in getting me into a ground-breaking rehabilitation program in Ohio," Charlebois said. "If I didn't know John, that wouldn't have happened. As a young kid, I listened to stories from my father and the Colts about the guts and determination of this skinny guy from Louisville. John showed me certain exercises to build up my triceps. One of the things that helped me get through my accident was how brave he was coming back from all of his injuries. In the back of my mind, that's one of the things that helped me get through mine."
A comedian and writer, Charlebois recently married and makes his home in Monrovia, Calif.
Rival and friend
One of the finest linebackers of his day, Huff broke into the NFL in 1956, the same year as Unitas, but seldom got the best of his contemporary. He starred for the Giants when they dropped the 1958 and '59 title games to the Colts, and he finished his career with Washington when there was a huge gulf between the Colts and Redskins.
"The Giants played the Colts in an exhibition in '56," Huff said. "Some of our guys said, 'We're lucky we didn't have to play George Shaw,' but I said, 'That UNI-tas guy is pretty good.' I intercepted a Unitas pass once, the only game we [the Giants] ever beat them at Memorial Stadium [in 1963]. That was a classic nobody remembers. One day at RFK, he beat nine straight defenses that I called.
"As I was leaving the house for one Colts game, my ex-wife said, 'I don't care what you do, but don't hit John.' I made friends with all the quarterbacks I used to chase, hit them hard, and they played hard against me. I was with John at a charity event over the summer and saw what a struggle it was for him to hold a pen to sign autographs. I called him the Friday before he died, just to see how he was doing."
Baltimore has neighborhoods that aren't marked on the map, like Greektown. Locals know where to find them, and any Colts fans in the mid-1960s could locate Orrsville. Before cookie-cutter stadiums came into vogue, each NFL stadium had its quirks. Savvy visitors to San Francisco's Kezar Stadium inspected for soggy spots. At Memorial Stadium, defensive backs loathed a Unitas pass into the right side of the closed end, where Orr, 5 feet 11, 185 pounds, found the claustrophobic quarters near the Orioles dugout to his liking.
"If you laid down in the middle of the field, it looked like it sloped a couple of yards downhill to that corner," Orr said. "I swear, that made me run faster. On Thursdays, we would practice at the stadium without the defense, and John and I would get our timing down. It was scary in that corner, tight. You go into a place where there are walls and people, subconsciously, that affects you, especially if you're a defensive back. We would go sliding into that baseball warning track, and I had a couple of cinders in my arm for a long time."
Semerad was stricken as a child by Perthes Disease, which limits circulation in the hip socket. He was 7 and wheelchair-bound in April 1959, when the quarterback of the world champions knocked on his door. Unitas asked, "Is Larry in?" and Semerad's incredulous father said, "Who should I say is calling?" Unitas spent an hour at the Semerad home, which soon was overrun by neighborhood children.
"I was selected the Maryland Easter Seal poster boy in 1960, and John happened to be the honorary chairman," Semerad said. "I was on crutches, and we threw a ball back and forth. I could kick it with one leg, and that's something I didn't forget. John didn't just visit me. He visited many kids. The impressions you get at a young age are hard to forget, for good or bad. The recipients of his kindness have gone on to reciprocate the rest of humanity."
Semerad, Archbishop Curley class of 1969, is something of a Renaissance man. He turned his energy to music and became proficient as a pianist, then became well enough to play sports. He was a nationally ranked featherweight boxer as a student at Notre Dame, and works as a massage therapist in Destin, Fla.
Kurt L. Schmoke
Once there were two potent football powers on 33rd Street. Across from Memorial Stadium, Kurt Schmoke polished his leadership skills by quarterbacking City College to unbeaten prep seasons in 1965 and '66. He went on to Yale and then a Rhodes Scholarship, returned home and was mayor of Baltimore in 1991, when the final Orioles game at Memorial Stadium reunited him with one of his role models.
"George Young, my high school coach, was able to negotiate us using the whirlpool in the Colts' locker room," said Schmoke, the newly named dean of the Howard University School of Law. "I had an injury and walked across the street for treatment once. I used to get tickets in the cheap seats and watch John's every move. I met him several times and shook his hand like everyone else.
"When the Orioles played their last game at Memorial Stadium, John and Brooks Robinson threw out the final 'first pitch.' Cal Ripken Jr. caught Brooks. We didn't have a pro football team then, and John threw the football to me. It was hard, because except for the president of the United States, politicians should not be allowed on the field. I didn't belong with those three guys, but it's my fondest adult memory of John Unitas."